I used to be a transphobic gay man. In the fall of 2011, I was sitting in my car with a friend, parked in front of my yellow San Diego house, talking about dating and gay bars and all the new things I’d learned about myself since coming out the year before. At some point, trans* people came up. “I know I’m supposed to get it because I’m gay,” I said, “but I just don’t understand the whole trans* thing at all. It makes me feel so weird.” I remember a co-worker telling me that her sibling had just come out as transgender and not knowing what to say to her. I remember making jokes. I remember feeling uncomfortable when trans* people would walk into the coffee shop. I am grateful to no longer be that person, yet I’m aware of the progress I still have to make. I must always be accountable to change.
Something seismic shifted inside me when I saw Matrix co-director Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech for the HRC Visibility Award in October 2012. For the first time, I heard a transgender person speak with candor and vulnerability about her experience, and I realized — with painful clarity — that much of the LGBTQ movement, for which I care so deeply, and to which I am giving my energy and my paychecks, was getting it wrong. Trans* voices are conspicuously absent, and too many uninformed and insensitive lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer persons are doing harm to the trans* community while simultaneously purporting to speak for them. Just because I have experienced one kind of oppression does not mean that I understand all oppression.
Early in her speech, Lana reflects on a dinner she went to with a group of friends and strangers. “Throughout the dinner,” she says, “they repeatedly refer to me as ‘he’ or one of the ‘Wachowski brothers,’ sometimes using half my name, ‘Laaaaaa,’ as an awkward bridge between identities, unable or perhaps unwilling to see me as I am.” I have been that person, I thought.
It was at this moment that I understood, that I felt for the first time the privilege to which I am heir as a cisgender person — that is, as someone whose assigned sex at birth matches my self-perceived gender identity. Like some religious revival, Lana’s story converted me, opening my eyes to a world and a reality to which I had previously been completely ignorant. I couldn’t help but see the deeply embedded gender binary, the one that hems trans* persons in with anxiety and fear, everywhere, even in queer communities.
When I checked in at the airport later that month, I couldn’t get my boarding pass until I clicked either “male” or “female” on the screen. When I went to the bathroom in public, I realized how difficult it would be if the people around me questioned whether or not I was going into the right one. When I showed my ID to get into a bar, I didn’t have to worry about the bouncer accusing me of having a fake. When I went to the doctor, I didn’t have to wonder if my physician would know what to do with my body. Like some dense morning fog, the gender binary seemed to loom everywhere, and I felt burdened like I never had before to fight for the trans* community that I’d been including for years in the acronym with which I identified.
For trans* people, violence is a pressing reality. I have a friend in medical school in San Diego who called me last year after attending a lecture on trans* health. The guest speaker, a physician who works almost exclusively with trans* persons, explained that he wasn’t able to retain his patients. “It’s not because they’re dying from disease,” he said. “It’s because they’re being murdered.” In a 2011 report on trans* discrimination, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found disturbing rates of harassment of trans* and gender-nonconforming persons, with 78 percent of their 6,450 participants reporting being a victim at least once. For trans* women of color, particularly African Americans, the discrimination was most severe.
When Obama gave his second inaugural address this January, queer people across the country celebrated the fact that the president of the United States had named marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples a civil rights issue. However, I couldn’t help but wonder what my trans* friends were thinking.
President Obama invoked Stonewall, that historic riot that changed the course of queer history in America but failed to mention that the event was sparked, in large part, by courageous transgender women like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The two went on to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to provide aid to other young, homeless trans* women. Johnson died in New York in 1992, her body found floating in the Hudson River. Even though there was evidence of harassment, the police ruled it a suicide and refused to investigate. The case was not reopened until 2012.
In her essay “Crossing Gender Borders,” Virginia Ramey Mollenkott says that “it is vital for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals to recognize our movement as basically a transgender movement,” something that I would argue that we’ve deplorably failed to do. She continues: “The fact that the most effeminate gay men and the butchest lesbians are the most endangered among us should alert us to the fact that society cares less about what we do in private than it cares about a challenge to its longstanding gender assumptions.”
As queer people, we have been challenging gender roles and expectations since we started kissing each other. The dirty little secret of the LGBTQ community, though, the thing that we don’t want to admit, is that we have a long way to go on the road toward trans* safety and inclusion. We compromise our commitment to justice when we fail to recognize that there are members of our own community in whose oppression we are complicit.
“If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden, and I couldn’t allow that,” says one of the characters in Lana Wachowski’s most recent film, Cloud Atlas. Unless it truly includes our all-too-often-forgotten trans* members, the LGBTQ movement for equality is no fight for social justice. We must continue to elevate bold, clear trans* voices like Lana’s, Sylvia’s and Marsha’s if we are ever to see the world of love and acceptance we’ve been marching to build for decades.
Follow Todd Clayton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/todd_clayton